THEATRE / Marriage of two minds: Paul Taylor on All's Well That Ends Well directed by Peter Hall at the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon

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The Independent Culture
In a marked display of Company continuity, all but one of the RSC's four artistic directors to date have new productions opening in Stratford this season - which makes a nice change from last year when inexperience seemed to be the height of fashion. First off is the founder, Peter Hall, debuting in the Swan with an All's Well That Ends Well set in the Caroline period.

His is an All's Well that certainly ends well, in that it feelingly conveys just how tentative and precarious is the play's 'happy' resolution. The production's most charged and moving moment comes in the last scene when the pregnant Helena confronts Bertram, having performed to the letter all the seemingly impossible tasks that constituted his callous conditions for accepting her as a wife. Hands trembling, voice unsteady with emotion, Sophie Thompson's Helena begins to read him back his own words. With a pained, dignified 'et cetera' (uttered after a beautifully pointed pause), she spares both of them a full recital, and then determinedly rends the paper in two. This is a wonderfully double- edged gesture. On the one hand, it seems to be saying that all this can now be put behind them; but the thickened intensity of the action suggests that damage has been done that cannot be so easily forgotten and forgiven.

As interpreted by Hall, the conclusion loses any refulgent, romance-like glow. When the lights dim and Helena enters dressed in white, the gathered people don't respond to her as some symbol of harmonising fecundity but start back in terror, realistically, as at the approach of a ghost. You notice that she neglects to offer Bertram any kiss of reconciliation and moves aside to embrace his mother, the Countess (who is given more unforgiving asperity than usual by Barbara Jefford).

The chances are that Toby Stephens' fine Bertram would end up making a decent husband though, for the production takes the line that he is sincerely chastened by the multiple humiliations towards the end. Arrogant nostrils flaring, Stephens presents you at first with a callow cavalier, who causes the odd wince of compassion as he tries to hide his youthful insecurities behind a front of haughty heartlessness. It's not his refusal to be given as a reward that is repellent (who would want to be a gift-wrapped groom?) but the strident snobbery of his grounds for refusing.

As a way of partially reconciling us to him, Hall focuses attention very clearly, though, on the schooling in shame that the hero receives in the second half. Comically, all his military colleagues turn as one to watch his abashed, horrified reaction to the garrulous treacheries of Michael Silberry's Parolles, the 'friend' he has overrated as much as he has underrated Helena. And it's Stephens' scalded human desperation, not his wriggling deviousness, that makes the bigger impact as his sins come home to roost in the final scene, where he ends up a head- hanging, penitent wreck.

There are some excellent performances, especially from Rebecca Saire as Diana, who here takes on her role as the riddling stage-manageress of Helena's return with a lovely, calm, pertly provoking relish at everyone's bemusement. What the production lacks, though, is any strong sense of atmosphere or personality. Changes of place are indicated feebly by little models (there's one of the Duomo for the Florentine scenes) which pop out through the tilted screen of black panels at the back. There is intelligence and clarity, but (despite the needlings between Puritan stewards and throwback Elizabethan jesters) the details do not add up to a world.

Continues in rep at The Swan, Stratford (0789 295623)

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